A heart surgery gave Robert Zimmerman a new outlook on life, and made him become an advocate for heart health
By KRYSTAL NURSE
WIthin 72 hours, Deputy Mayor Robert Zimmerman’s life changed forever following a major surgery, and now he advocates for everyone to listen to their bodies and to keep up with their health.
In 2012, prior to a routine physical for the Pitman Police Department, Zimmerman said he would have episodes of intense chest pain, difficulty breathing and a shortness of breath, but shrugged it off at the time because he would often feel better the next day, and it was while there was a high-pollen alert in the area. However the symptoms kept coming back and he went to the captain, Zimmerman was the chief, and asked for the earliest possible date to get a physical.
After he had been tested and the doctor, Steve Meskin, cleared him for the department, Zimmerman said he went back into the office and told Meskin about the episodes he’d been dealing with and that an allergy medicine he was taking wasn’t helping. He was then scheduled for a cardiac stress test in Washington Township to find out what’s causing the episodes.
“Within 45 minutes of doing the test, they said that I had heart disease and I’d have to have a heart catheterization done,” said Zimmerman. “They scheduled it for the next morning at Cooper Hospital, and the cardiologist that administered the test said I had significant blockage and that he couldn’t stent me.”
At Cooper, Zimmerman was informed by Michael Rosenbloom, the chief cardiothoracic surgeon, that he needed to have double bypass surgery to remedy his heart condition through his left anterior descending artery due to a “widow maker,” a condition in which the main artery that delivers blood to the heart is blocked. Within 12 hours, the double bypass surgery was done.
“I was overwhelmingly scared, but once it was over, it was a matter of recovering from the traumatization of having your chest cracked open,” he said. “What they do is use a medical saw and cut your sternum in half and open your chest cavity and bypass that are blocked and use the mammary artery and they bypassed in one direction, took a graph in my groin and right leg and then bypassed that way.”
His trail to becoming an advocate didn’t start until after a few people contacted him during his recovery to inquire that he had this despite being in good health at 47. He spoke about it at length at Gloucester County and New Jersey police chief association meetings and various other public meetings.
“People do come to me and say they’re happy to hear about it,” he said. “Someone said that, because of my story, it prompted him to seek early intervention and he had significant blockage, and if he might not have heard my story, he might not have gone.”
Now at 53 as an elected official, Zimmerman has people around Mantua Township come up during February committee meetings to discuss their personal experience with heart conditions, as Tom and Courtney Turk did this month, and present them a proclamation.
“By doing the proclamation, it made that connection and had people thinking that with someone being so young, it could happen to anyone,” he said. “You wouldn’t know that unless they talk about it.”
Since the surgery, Zimmerman said he has revamped his diet to include more protein-rich foods such as chicken, eggs and certain fish, vegetables and fruit and to avoid red meat. He said he also “goes to the gym almost religiously” to stay on top of his overall health.
“I wouldn’t go through it again, but I wouldn’t change how things happened in my life as it relates to that because I think it was a wake-up call for me,” he said. “I was the type to be high stress and burning the candle on both ends, and I needed a swift kick in the you-know-what to get my attention to slow me down.”